And it's got nothing to do with camp, technology or childcare.
In some ways, summer still means what it's always meant: warmer weather, extra family time and a more relaxed schedule than the rest of the year. But this year is undeniably unlike any other summer before.
For many families, summer usually means 8-10 weeks of time spent at home or at camp, but this year many camps are closed and most families have just survived 12 weeks of togetherness due to school closures. How on earth can you keep kids busy and engaged all summer when you've already used up all your fun ideas trying to get through the past few months? How can you possibly help kids fill the next few months in a way that isn't overrun with boredom and complaints?
The trick to surviving summer is helping kids find meaning in their days.
What gives a day meaning can vary from family to family, but in general the idea is to have a shared sense of working towards something. When kids are able to see themselves reaching a goal, bit by bit, it helps their days have meaning.
While we're limited by social distancing, closed camps and restricted activities, we still have the ability to create meaning and purpose—along with plenty of fun—this summer. Things definitely won't be "summer as usual" this year. But the good news is, even though things are different this year, there are still plenty of ways to make summer meaningful for your kids.
Try the following five tips to help your kids have a meaningful summer, even while being limited by social distancing.
1. Set summer goals
One of the easiest ways to give your children's summer meaning is to encourage them to accomplish something that feels worthwhile. In order to make that happen, you need to help your children figure out what they want to accomplish.
Depending on your children's ages, you may create a list of goals primarily set by you (for younger kids) or by them (for older kids). Generally, it works best to set a range of goals—some daily (read for 15 minutes each day), some weekly (help cook dinner) and some for the whole summer (learn to ride a bike). Goals can also encompass a range of skills and ideals, including personal goals, social goals, academic goals and community service goals.
Once you have a list of goals, make a checklist so kids can check off items as they're completed, helping them see progress towards their end goal. At the end of the summer, they can look back at all they've learned and accomplished!
2. Find ways to connect to peers
For many kids, summer is about free time and friends, and a summer spent without that feels pointless and frustrating. It's important to help kids stay connected to peers in whatever ways feel appropriate to your family.
For some families, that means using videoconferencing apps to call friends or using Netflix Party to watch movies while chatting with friends. For other families, it means picking one or two "safe" families to socially distance with—limiting social interaction to just a few families to minimize exposure.
Peer relationships and safety are both important right now, so try to find a balance between helping your child feel connected and what feels right for your family.
3. Create family rituals
In general, activities gain meaning when they're about something more than just ourselves; we find meaning in tasks when we see a connection to something bigger. One important way to help kids feel connected to something bigger than themselves is to strengthen their identity as part of your family—and family rituals help kids do just that.
Summer, with all its endless time together, is the perfect time to create family rituals. Make Friday night "family movie night," and let children take turns picking the movie for everyone. Make Saturday morning your standard time for a family walk, and check out different places to walk together. You can have everyone cook dinner together once per week or build in time for board games each night after dinner.
Choose whichever rituals work best for your family, and remember that having the rituals is far more important than what you actually do during the rituals. Rituals help develop connections and consistency, which are both so important right now.
4. Create daily schedules
Another way to make summer feel more meaningful is to build a structure and plan for each day. Many kids feel overwhelmed and lost when their days are completely open, with no sense of a plan. Creating a schedule (even a loose one!) can help give kids direction and meaning.
Having a schedule doesn't have to mean you're all bound to the clock 24/7. Your schedule can reflect the more relaxed nature of summer (later bedtimes and wake times, free time before getting dressed in the morning, and so on), but it's still important to have daily expectations. Build in a predictable schedule for waking, dressing, meals and exercise.
And because it's summer, build in plenty of chances for free time, while ensuring the major transitions of the day are included. When kids have daily expectations, it lends a sense of purpose to their days.
5. Build self-help skills
Finally, give meaning to summer by helping kids learn how to be more independent. One of the great gifts of summer is time. You can let your preschooler spend 15 minutes putting his pajama shirt on all by himself because it's okay if he gets to bed a few minutes late. You can let your 6 year old spend 20 minutes tying his shoes because there's no school bus he's going to miss.
Because summer gives you time, it's a great chance to help kids of all ages master self-help skills and developmentally-appropriate chores. Elementary aged kids can learn to prepare simple snacks and meals or help run the dishwasher and washing machine. Younger children can work on dressing, hygiene and toileting. If you have middle-school or high-schoolers, help them develop job skills or more advanced cooking skills. Summer is the perfect time to let your child master a new skill that he or she will have for a lifetime.
Summers often feel long and lazy, but this summer could feel especially long since families have already spent the past 3 months cooped up together! Rather than viewing the next few months as an endless battle against boredom, work toward giving your children's summer a sense of purpose and meaning—it might just be your best summer yet.
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